A morning’s kayak


It’s been a long day, but well worth it. I haven’t been making it out on the water enough lately, and so today, even though there was a lot to do later in the day, I made special plans for an early morning kayak. I made it onto the water and began my paddle with stars twinkling overhead, in that magical time after moonset and before sunrise, when it is dark enough to make the bioluminescent waters of Tomales Bay sparkle with their own version of the heavens, each paddle stroke lighting up with its own zipping universe of life.

I couldn’t see many of the birds at first, but I could hear them- the wavering cry of the loon, the unique whistling sound created by the wings of the surf scoter (the only bird I can ID in the dark by the sound of its wings), the slapping of the water as cormorants ran on its surface to take off… Birding before sunrise is so different, much more about the shape and size of a flying bird silhouetted against the sky, mixed with the rhythm of their wingbeats the only keys to who it is, unless you can hear its cry. As the sky slowly lightened, I found I’d gone nearly three miles before it was bright enough to take photographs without a tripod (tripods being very impractical on a kayak). I snapped a few obligatory sunrise shots of colored sky and silhouetted hills, as I waited for the opportunity to shoot the thousands upon thousands of birds wintering on the waters of the bay. And so the day began.

I saw many ducks, mostly Buffleheads (above), Surf Scoters, Wigeons, and Goldeneyes. If I'd headed to the south end of the bay, the species would have been more varied.

I saw many ducks, mostly Buffleheads (above), Surf Scoters, Wigeons, and Goldeneyes. If I’d headed to the south end of the bay, the species would have been more varied.

I paddled along the shores, trying to photograph the many ducks I was seeing, but they were more skittish than usual. I’m not sure if it was something they were reacting to in me (I haven’t done as much paddling lately, and my energy might not have been as relaxed), or something in the air… Maybe it was the coyote I saw, munching the remains of a male Bufflehead…

The vultures at least seemed relaxed

The vultures at least seemed relaxed

So I decided to find myself something different to shoot (maybe ducks just get nervous about that whole “getting shot”), and headed towards some mudflats where I was able to find some delightful shorebirds (which are always so much fun with all that energy), which were much easier to approach.

I began with the Marbled Godwits. They've long been one of my favorites, since they were one of the first birds I learned to identify

I began with the Marbled Godwits. They’ve long been one of my favorites, since they were one of the first birds I learned to identify

It was when I found some of my smallest birds of the day however, when I was able to really settle in and find my groove. As they moved their way down the muddy shoreline, I was able to ground the kayak in the shallows, and await their approach, with the sun at my back. Good lighting and cooperative subjects, what more could one ask.

I was noticed from time to time...

I was noticed from time to time…

To really show you the frenetic energy of these tiny birds, I set my camera up to shoot a little video, that I will try to share tomorrow or Tuesday. I’m very happy with the quality I was able to get. It’s almost hard to tell that it was shot handheld.

But, I was unworthy of true worry, as they went about their normal life of feeding and scratching those troublesome itches

But, I was unworthy of true worry, as they went about their normal life of feeding and scratching those troublesome itches

And so I sat there in my kayak, clicking away as I watched and studied these little birds, enjoying them. I lost myself to the viewfinder as I followed one bird, then another with my lens, freezing moments in their lives. From time to time I’d come back to myself, to realize that my kayak was left out of the water by the outgoing tide, and I’d have to try to pole my way back out into deeper water.

Nothing like a good stretch.

Nothing like a good stretch.

Before a nice pose

Before a nice pose

OK, shake it off. Get back to feeding.

OK, shake it off. Get back to feeding.

As I paddled away, I realized I lost something. As I looked around, trying to find a missing bit of equipment, I saw a young hungry gull beginning to feed-

What is that tasty treat?

What is that tasty treat?

Yeah, it’s the eyecup to my viewfinder. It had fallen off of my camera, and this juvenile Western Gull was trying to make a meal of it. I was now in a tricky spot. I didn’t want the gull to think I was coming after the eyecup, or else it would do one of two things- eat it before I could steal it (which would not be too healthy for the gull), or else fly away with it, leading me on a merry chase. So slowly, I began to wind my way towards it.

And of course the gull was acting a little shy with its treat

And of course the gull was acting a little shy with its treat

Finally, it dropped the eyecup and stepped away, as it tried to decide how best to proceed with its new treat. I took my opportunity and scared it off before it could reclaim its prize.

All in all, a beautiful day full of adventure.

About Galen Leeds Photography

Nature and wildlife photographer, exploring the world on his feet and from his kayak. Among other genres, he is one of the leading kayak photographers in Northern California. To learn more about him, visit him on his website- www.galenleeds.net
This entry was posted in birds, kayak photography, marine life, nature photography, Photo Essay, photography, shorebirds, wildlife photography and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to A morning’s kayak

  1. newsferret says:

    What a lovely way to start a day.

  2. I’ve missed traveling along with you on these trips. If time allows, keep ’em coming.

    • Hi Chris. I truly enjoy sharing my photography and adventures with folks, so I will certainly try to keep doing so more regularly. Luckily we live in a beautiful area that inspires both photography and adventures, so I have no shortage on what to write about

  3. lylekrahn says:

    That was a nice little journey. Great that the eyecup made it home safe.

  4. Dave Miller says:

    So inspiring. I haven’t yet had the courage to bring the camera out on the kayak, but you have given me great incentive.

    • It’s one if my favorite platforms for photography. Make sure you know both your kayak and camera well before heading out, and then choose your water carefully to make sure it’s an area your comfortable taking it out in- big waves or rapids… Maybe it’s best to leave the camera at home.

      I’ve written several articles also on tips for taking cameras kayaking. You can find them a the top of my blog page under the heading “kayak photography,” next to the “about” button.

      Happy paddles

  5. That young gull looks so proud carrying that red eyecup.
    I went paddling yesterday in White’s Gulch and saw about 100 Elk. I love the sounds of Surf Scooters flying above the water and the Brandt’s Geese honking and hooting. I felt very rejuvenated afterwords.
    Your pictures get me so much closer than I can see. I really appreciate your fabulous photography and your stories you tell alongside.

    • It was in White Gulch where I took my shorebird photos, while the tide was still high… And where the gull found its prize. I saw that group of elk. One of the biggest I’ve seen in white gulch, and much larger than any group I’ve seen there lately. A few we’re milling around when I was there (before 10 am), but most of them were still laying down. I did a quick count from one of my photos, and it was pretty darn near an hundred.

      So happy we have this bay to kayak on

  6. janechese says:

    Great photos and lovely storytelling. i enjoyed the outing.

    • It nibbled at that eyecup so many times, and actually took it quite a distance before I could shoo it off. At the time I was thinking that its taste buds must be very different from mt own (I think I would have given up on eating it after the fourth or fifth taste)

  7. David Olmstead says:

    Very nice recap

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